In 1928, Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) formed the Jam’iyyat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Society of the Muslim Brothers) with the aim of “providing an Islamic education (tarbiya) and moral orientation (tahdhib) to their members and a wider public, in order to make them understand Islam correctly.” From this innocuous beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood grew to influence rulers and religious figures across the Middle East. Perhaps the most controversial figured tied to the Muslim Brotherhood is current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (Born 1951). In recent years, rumors of the Western power’s (primarily Britain and the United States of America) funding of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Cold War era have run rampant. This has led to the construction of conspiracy theories that postulate this funding resulted in the sowing of the seeds that bore the bitter harvest of the September11th 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. In this paper, the author will examine the facts behind these theories and evaluate their veracity in the context of Middle Eastern diplomacy.
Figure 1: Hasan al-Banna
Al-Banna grew up in an Egypt that acted as a pawn in Britain’s struggles with other colonial powers. British historian Mark Curtis writes, “After Britain captured India, the Ottoman Empire [which Egypt was a part of] was seen as a convenient buffer to keep out rivals along the military and trade route to the jewel in the crown.” Such was British commitment that during the Crimean War they would support the Ottoman Empire against the Russians. When Britain found itself preparing to oppose the Ottomans in the First World War, she would make an appeal to the Arab people as Curtis again recorded. “In May 1915, Britain also proclaimed . . . that, despite the sultan of Turkey having become an enemy, ‘our policy of respect and friendliness towards Islam remains unchanged.” Additionally, the British pledged to support Arabs in efforts to win their independence from Ottoman rule. To facilitate this, Army officers including Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935, more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia) drew assignments as advisors to Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali’s (1854-1931) 1916 Arab revolt.
While bin Ali and his British advisors waged revolution, French diplomat François Georges-Picot (1870-1951) was in negotiation with his English counterpart Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919). The result of their labors was the Sykes-Picot agreement that guaranteed the following “That France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab states or a confederation of Arab states (a) and (b) marked on the annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief.” This treaty was reached in secret and did not become public knowledge until after the Bolsheviks released it following their revolution in Russia. This strained Arab-British relations, as it was not the self-governance promised.
Figure 2: The Sykes-Picot agreement map